The invisible boundaries of everyday life

Norman Shrapnel, the wise and kindly parliamentary correspondent of the Guardian back in the day when it was a readable newspaper, tried never to give a book a bad review. He liked to say that anyone who had taken the time and trouble to write about anything at length deserved to be given the benefit of the doubt, and so he generally dipped his reviewer’s pen in honey rather than vinegar. I must say that on picking up Maxim Samson’s Invisible Lines, I felt quite otherwise. I wanted at first (an important caveat) to paint my laptop’s entire screen with vitriol. Within two pages I’d begun to loathe the author’s

The death of royalty

The cohorts of Hamas have invaded my neighbourhood. I was walking my dog, Maxi, in the afterglow of a shower that had lit the pavements with a pearlescence you normally see only in the piazzas of Syracuse, when I paused to look at the posters of kidnapped Israelis that someone had hung opposite Gail’s. I was thinking that I should have brought flowers, when they were upon us. Two women, their faces slack with the stupidity of hate, started tearing at the sad tributes with their carmine fingernails, screaming obscenities about Israel and the Jews. I didn’t know what the etiquette was on occasions like these, so I picked up

The glory of Paris has long past

Gstaad A reader’s inquiry as to why I think Paris belongs to yesterday (12 August) has me remembering times past. When did the party end? According to many night owls it was when the ‘Queen of the Night’, Regine, shut down her club New Jimmy’z and moved to London in the 1970s, where she flopped. Others believe it was ‘les événements de soixante-huit’, the student-worker revolt against De Gaulle that did Paris in. Certainly, any way one looks at it, the events of 1968 did signal that the party was over; and it has stayed over ever since. Mind you, the high jinks had been waning for some time. I

Stop trying to make high culture funky

Clive Myrie, now probably the top face of the BBC, and host of their television coverage of the Proms, had a strange one on Twitter this weekend. A fan gushed at him that ‘[the Proms are] completely accessible – no formal dress code and you can buy a Prom ticket on the day for the price of a pint! To hear some of the world’s best performers. What’s not to love?’ To which Myrie replied, ‘We’ve to keep pushing on that. This is music for everyone, not a select few who know their crotchets from their quavers!! That’s boring and naff!!’ The people who take these ‘vital’ and ‘important’ stands

Who’s killing Australia Day?

Australia Day was once a big deal Down Under, but in recent years the annual celebration has been somewhat muted. Take the Australian Open, currently running in Melbourne. The organisers have dedicated days throughout the tournament for a range of causes: there has been a Pride day and a day celebrating indigenous art and culture. But although the semi-finals are being played today, on Australia Day itself, there will be no recognition of the country’s national day. ‘We are mindful there are differing views, and at the Australian Open we are inclusive and respectful of all,’ Tennis Australia said in a statement. Tennis fans aren’t the only ones missing out:

Joe Lycett and the trouble with wokescreening

The word ‘wokescreen’ is (like its naughty older sibling, the carelessly carbon-producing smokescreen), an alibi which hides the truth about a nefarious action. But what marks it out from old-fashioned hypocrisy is that – rather than being a mere rogue – the wokescreener poses as a social justice hero, looking down from a great height at the great unwoked. From the Sussexes’ private planes to Justin Trudeau’s blackface antics, the wokescreen is a fine example of modern Magical Thinking – if you identify as good, you can then be bad to your sanctimonious little heart’s content. A prime example is the comedian Joe Lycett who – having condemned David Beckham

Why ‘pop’ is popping up everywhere

The Guardian kindly tells us that green is a colour whose time has come: ‘A blazer or a cotton shirt in Wimbledon grass-court green as a pop of saturated colour against white jeans and chunky flat boots is very Copenhagen Fashion Week.’ For the Express, it’s nails: ‘With polish costing from as little as £1, you can add a pop of colour to an outfit for next to nothing.’ This is the sassiest usage just at the moment of that vastly productive word pop. Yet in the papers, the predominant references by far are still to pop stars or (heaven help us) pop culture. That kind of pop simply comes

How the travel industry convinced us we needed holidays

In September 2019, Thomas Cook filed for compulsory liquidation, leaving 600,000 customers stranded abroad. It was a sorry end to a company that had lasted 178 years and survived both world wars. Founded by a Baptist preacher who began organising railway trips to Midland cities for local temperance societies, the company grew into one of the largest travel agencies in the world, thanks to the transformation of tourism from an activity for the idle rich to an experience open to all. This opening up of travel is the story Lucy Lethbridge tells in Tourists, taking the reader from the last years of the Grand Tour to the first years of

An inspirational teacher: Elizabeth Finch, by Julian Barnes, reviewed

‘Whenever you see a character in a novel, let alone a biography or history book, reduced and neatened into three adjectives, always distrust that description.’ So says the protagonist of Julian Barnes’s latest novel, the poised, droll, epigrammatic Elizabeth Finch, who is loosely modelled on his late friend and fellow Booker Prize-winner Anita Brookner. A lecturer delivering an adult education course on Culture and Civilisation, an exercise she considers ‘rigorous fun’, she introduces her students to figures such as Goethe and Epictetus. Her talks, designed to make them question what they think they know about the past, are peppered with little provocations: ‘We should always distinguish between mutual passion and

The snobbish attacks on Nadine Dorries

I see the establishment has a new sport: mocking Nadine Dorries. They really do hate her. Or rather, they love taking the mick out of her. She looks drunk! She only has one book on her shelf! She gives car-crash interviews! She wouldn’t know culture if it bit her on the behind! You don’t need a PhD in class studies to work out what’s motoring this frenzied Nadine-bashing: classic, old-fashioned snobbery. You know a political trend has taken off when it finds its way even on to Instagram, the only social media I use. When even this normally peaceful virtual world of cats and selfies is invaded by political memes,

The Netflix generation has lost its grip on history

The first thing you notice about Bridgerton, Netflix’s big winter blockbuster set in Regency England, is how bad it is: an expensive assemblage of clichés that smacks of the American’s-eye view of Britain’s aristocratic past. The dialogue is execrable, the ladies’ pouts infuriating. But bad things can be good, especially when it comes to sexy period romps. Bridgerton is no different. The story follows the elder children of the Bridgerton family as they look for love in a utopian sprawl of courtly landscape and sociality. Based on Julia Quinn’s best-selling novel and adapted for Netflix by Shonda Rhimes (writer and producer of multi-season binge classic Gray’s Anatomy), the invitation to let

When did postmodernism begin?

There’s a scene in Martin Amis’s 1990s revenge comedy The Information in which a book reviewer, who’s crushed by his failures and rendered literally impotent by his best friend’s success, is sitting in a low-lit suburban room beside a girl (not his wife) named Belladonna: ‘She was definitely younger than him. He was a modernist. She was the thing that came next.’ Stuart Jeffries argues in his new book that the thing that came next was in fact a thing that started a couple of decades before Amis wrote The Information. In Jeffries’s telling, postmodernity can be dated to 13 August 1971, when Richard Nixon held a closed-door meeting that

The mind virus killing academia

We lost a giant last month with E.O. Wilson’s passing. A man who stood on Darwin’s shoulders, Wilson had that rare distinction of inspiring a whole discipline in the form of evolutionary psychology. The great sense of loss did not seem to be shared by Scientific American, however, which soon afterwards put out a piece reflecting on the ‘complicated legacies of scientists whose works are built on racist ideas’. Among the ‘problematic’ aspects of Wilson’s work, the author argued, was the ‘descriptions and importance of ant societies existing as colonies’. This was ‘a component of Wilson’s work that should have been critiqued’ because ‘context matters’. Scientific American is not Teen

Most-read 2021: The Netflix generation has lost its grip on history

We’re closing the year by republishing our ten most popular articles in 2021. Here’s number four: Zoe Strimpel writing in February about how popular portrayals of the past are being changed to fit the present.  The first thing you notice about Bridgerton, Netflix’s big winter blockbuster set in Regency England, is how bad it is: an expensive assemblage of clichés that smacks of the American’s-eye view of Britain’s aristocratic past. The dialogue is execrable, the ladies’ pouts infuriating. But bad things can be good, especially when it comes to sexy period romps. Bridgerton is no different. The story follows the elder children of the Bridgerton family as they look for love

When the past becomes a page-turner: our pick of the best history books

‘May you live in interesting times’. So the Chinese curse goes, and we undeniably live in interesting times, alas. But that doesn’t mean the past has lost any of its allure; indeed, quite the opposite. Right now, it’s just the tonic we need. If you found history dull at school, being merely an endless parade of facts and heavy-handed analysis, then you are the perfect potential reader for these superb examinations of past eras by some of Britain’s best popular historians.  Here are half a dozen of our favourite page-turning history books, guaranteed to have you rapt and astonished at the revelations therein. Dan Jones – The Plantagenets (William Collins, £10.99)

The 20th century told in 10 films

Cinema came of age in the 20th century and documented that epoch in all its trials and tribulations. Movies are for the most part escapist confections but they can also reflect our world back to us. To learn about the major events of the last century, it is sometimes as useful to turn to a film as to pick up a book. The following are ten movies that tell key chapters of the 20th century. The Great War, 1917 (Sam Mendes, 2019)  World War I is the harder of the two world wars to make a movie about. It was not a good war, easily rendered into a Hollywood morality

In defence of audiobooks

A certain stigma has attached itself to audiobooks. To the old school bibliophile, they are the literary equivalent of pre-chewed steak. The sceptics may have a point. After all, reading is tiring for the same reason that chewing is – work is being done. The brain is just a lump of clever fat, of course, rather than bunched muscle, but it still uses up some 20 per cent of the calories we consume and so it shouldn’t really be surprising that we get tired reading. Taking the sequenced squiggles on the page and converting them into the architecture of a story, a philosophy or a verse, is hard. Children find

The Florence Nightingale museum has been abandoned

The Florence Nightingale Museum is unwell. Just as the government announced that Nightingale hospitals were being ‘reactivated’ to cope with the surge in coronavirus cases, the museum’s Director David Green also had something important to say. To prevent the museum becoming financially insolvent, their galleries are closing indefinitely. Any attempt to reopen in the coming months would just be ‘prolonging the inevitable’. I hope the Prime Minister is aware of this irony. He’s certainly keen to highlight the Lady with the Lamp’s legacy. The museum is housed at St Thomas’ Hospital directly over the river from Westminster, and on the bicentenary of Florence Nightingale’s birth her image was projected in

10 films to banish the January blues

At the best of times, January is a depressing month. Everyone is feeling poor and bloated after the Christmas extravaganza, and the days are still short and cold, with the nights drawing in far too early. Nobody has ever said ‘I’m really looking forward to January’. Which is why, with the spectre of illness and infection still stalking the land, the best thing that we can do is to stay at home with some of the most cheering films that we can find, and hope to banish the January blues that way. Of course, everyone enjoys a whacky comedy, or a gripping thriller, and they definitely have their place. But

Ten films for New Year’s Eve

New Year’s Eve is bound to be less brash this year – some would ever say melancholic. Strangely many classic New Year movies tend to bend towards a sense of melancholy amid the celebrations, most memorably Billy Wilder’s classic comedy-drama The Apartment (1960). That film at least has a hopeful ending. Unlike say Sunset Boulevard (1950), Splendour in the Grass (1961), Rosemary’s Baby (1968), The Godfather Part II (1974) and especially Looking for Mr Goodbar (1977). Still, things perk up in more recent pictures set on New Year’s Eve; here’s a selection to see 2021 in with; some good, some so-so, and some, well…not so great: About Time (2013) –